Emilio Villarruel
Emilio Villarruel
Director of Marketing

Tipsy Travels: The Ojen Cocktail in New Orleans

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The Ojen Cocktail in New Orleans

Through my travels, as the list of places gets checked off, there remains the lingering question of, “Where to next?”. It’s the mark of wanderlust; and in the case of aspiring gourmands, invites unending followup questions about the local food and drink. In my case, a twist of fate led me to a crown jewel of American culinary culture - New Orleans, Louisiana.

For the uninitiated, New Orleans, aside from being the birthplace of jazz music, is also home to a diverse cultural history that’s as rich and nuanced as the creole seasoning which graces the local cuisine. When strolling through the city you can see the French Colonial influence in the architecture, you can smell the Creole cooking everywhere (I mean it, my Airbnb smelled better than most restaurants thanks to someone’s nearby cooking), and an eclectic but not cacophonic blend of jazz, hiphop, and zydeco can be heard peppered throughout the streets as you walk along. The place just radiates flavor, from the personalities to the food to the ambience, the word “bland” is nonexistent.

When I arrived in New Orleans, my older brother accompanying me, we didn’t really have a plan in place. New Orleans wasn’t a scheduled trip, but instead, essentially a pivot made necessary due to COVID and other concerns. Nonetheless, as one does with reunions, we decided to make the best of it and headed to Café Du Monde as our landing pad, with the correct assumption that all planning is better done with fresh chicory coffee and beignets on hand. Upon some research we quickly found some exciting local cuisine but, in hoping to avoid the hustle & bustle of the French Quarter, were largely unsure about a watering hole that would match our speed. “We’ll know it when we see it” was our settled course of action and we set off to check in to our Airbnb and settle into our trip in earnest. 

While New Orleans is likely best known for Mardi Gras, a rowdy carnival celebration often marked by copious amounts of alcohol, debauchery, and the throwing of multicolored bead necklaces, the history of the place is well worth a deep dive. Through years of changing colonial ownership, deeply ingrained Creole influence, the American prohibition (of which it was quoted, “We all seemed to feel that Prohibition was a personal affront and that we had a moral duty to undermine it.”), Hurricane Katrina, and more, the landscape of New Orleans has changed considerably throughout the years. One unique aspect to New Orleans, at least to this spirit-seeking traveler, is the sense of cultural amalgamation. Unlike in other locales where cultural waves seem at odds with one another, trends and influences replacing others, New Orleans seems to welcome each chapter in its story as worth telling - which leads to some incredibly unique finds.

One such find is the inspiration for this article, a little-known spirit, both foreign and local to New Orleans – “Spanish Absinthe”, otherwise known as Legendre Ojen. As one does in New Orleans, my brother and I took a brief visit to the Sazerac House to both indulge ourselves in a little shopping (I confess, a few bottles in my home bar are now adorned with the bronze ‘Sazerac House’ tag indicating a local production). While perusing I came across what I first imagined was gin, only to be informed was Ojen, an anise liqueur originating in the 1800’s that later became a staple in New Orleans Mardi Gras cocktail culture. 

The story of Ojen is one that, believe it or not, brings me a lot of pride to work in this industry. A ‘good luck’ drink typically drank on Mardi Gras or other holidays, Ojen was imported from Spain until the distillery shut down in 1980. Fearing the loss of a legendary New Orleans libation, locals sought to secure a source for it, “In the late 80s, all the Fernandezes were gone, and the distillery was going to shut down. We panicked” said Ojen’s sole distributor in New Orleans. In a last ditch effort to ensure Ojen Frappes continued to grace bar counters 6,000 bottles were imported, the last of the original Ojen to reach Western shores. Rather than mull the last remaining drops as they mourned the loss of an iconic drink, the Sazerac company dedicated years to reverse engineer the previously lost recipe and reproduce it for the modern era. Named “Legendre Ojen” after Marion Legendre, creator of Herbsaint (another Sazerac portfolio brand).  

To spend years and resources to recreate an endangered flavor, with the understanding that there’ll likely be only one target market (New Orleans), indicates a real commitment to the craft and culture. Though I’m long since removed from my days of professionally attempting creations in the kitchen, it’s inspiring to see the commitment to flavor and passion for the culture of drink that those efforts represent. 

Needless to say, though I’ve never been particularly partial to anise, my thinking was that “Well if they went through all the trouble, I might as well see what it’s about” which led to three realizations. One, we were dutifully informed of New Orleans policy expressly permitting the open consumption of alcohol outside (for those in Asia, New Orleans is one of the only places in the U.S. where this is allowed), two, we learned that NOLA natives can be be quite encouraging of their drinking culture, and three, we learned that local cigar bar lounges often keep glassware on hand just in case you fancy a cheeky cocktail. 

Which is what led to one of my favorite moments of the entire trip, my brother and I seated outside Mayan’s Cigar Lounge in New Orleans, Drew Estate cigars in hand and a glass of Ojen each. We watched the smoke waft through the air, as the ice (dutifully produced by the lounge owner from who knows where) lounged lazily in the vibrant pink cocktail we appreciated the greetings from the locals, the music in the air, and the abundance of flavor around us. A moment crafted from simple ingredients, but elevated by the zest of life all around.

To New Orleans, I say cheers, this is one place I certainly will return to, to embrace the culture, commitment to flavor, and sense of welcome I experienced at every turn. Needless to say, a glass of Ojen will be on hand as well. 

Without further ado, the Ojen Cocktail:

2oz Legendre Ojen

1/2 oz Orgeat

7 oz dashes

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